The strands and building blocks that comprise the DNA of any given songwriter can involve just about anything. Perhaps it’s nostalgia and affection, or sincerity and abundance, or superheroes and daydreams. For John Darnielle, founder and principal songwriter for the indie rock band The Mountain Goats, it starts primarily with literature and camaraderie, though a dash of late-night TV and movies are sprinkled in healthily, as well. Such is the stuff that comprises Darnielle’s career with the group he founded some three decades and twenty-plus albums ago. More recently, the musician-turned-best-selling novelist has given his attention to a new LP—Bleed Out, which is set to drop on Friday (August 19)—one he wrote quickly, he says, but that boasts some of his best material to date. For Darnielle, that’s the beauty of creativity and, more specifically, of music. It’s versatility. It’s a language unto itself that offers even much more than that. It’s emotive and lush, fulfilling and inspiring. It’s who he is, which has been the case since his first record player at five years old.
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“Music has been part of my life from the time I was very, very young,” says Darnielle. “I like children’s music when I was a kid and showtunes.”
He lists titles of soundtracks like those from Fiddler on the Roof and The Wizard of Oz. He also remembers albums that accompanied kids’ books he had, little 7-inch singles that paired sounds with the words. He was “super into those,” he says, which makes sense today especially given his penchant for publishing tomes and recording music as a professional now as an adult. Darnielle, who enjoyed professional wrestling as a young person, too, says he invested in music more seriously as he got older because it was in the house. His parents divorced when he was young but before they split, his father would play piano in their home. Darnielle later took lessons of his own.
“The thing is,” he says, “when you grow up in a house and you hear music all around and people are always playing, making music is just a thing that occurs to you.”
In his twenties, he was living in Norwalk, California, where he founded The Mountain Goats as an experimental, lo-fi recording project. He was also working as a nurse. In his downtime, it was music. It wasn’t out of a sense of real ambition, wasn’t to make a name for himself in the world. It was just something to do. So, that’s what he did. Famously, he began recording himself with a boombox (later releasing recordings like these in the early ’90s). He got better one day at a time “by writing.” As with anything, practice makes perfect. Or, at least, makes progress.
“To practice writing,” Darnielle says, “you write.”
Darnielle was working 40 hours or more, per week, often enduring mandated overtime in his job as a nurse. He’d written some poetry in high school, which received some awards. So, he was versed in, well, verse. And in between work shifts, there wasn’t much else to do. It’s not like now, he says, where entertainment can inundate you with its “glut” of options. Some 30 years ago, you had to find your own stuff to do, which meant either watching the rudimentary television channels, reading, or picking up an instrument and plucking away. There was no cable TV, he wasn’t, as he says, ambitious. So, he noodled around and wrote. These days, his family has a TV, but it’s largely used by the kids for video games, Darnielle notes.
“When I lived in Norwalk, when I started the Mountain Goats, I didn’t have a TV,” Darnielle says. “I started dating a girl who was sad I didn’t [have a TV]. She bought me a small black-and-white one, which, to her, that was nuts. She wanted to buy me a color one.”
Together, they’d watch late-night movies and call-in psychiatric shows—happily. The “dregs” of what was on. But in a way, Darnielle liked it like that. There can be more inspiration in a B-monster movie than in a high-budget offering. Films that also showcase little mainstream ambition are fun, after all. As time passed, as The Mountain Goats enjoyed the practice Darnielle put into the project, things solidified and became more focused. But the main thing, even today, he says, is the camaraderie he and his bandmates enjoy. The music he writes and they make is for them, first and foremost. Fans and listeners come second, in this way. Darnielle compares the project to the Grateful Dead, who comported themselves similarly. The Mountain Goats released its first LP in 1994. Darnielle later moved to North Carolina and they’ve been making more polished work since, including more autobiographical albums with themes of drug addiction (and survival) and more. Along the way, Darnielle even worked closely with Annie Clark, who would later become the beloved musical figure, St. Vincent. Stephen Colbert remains a big fan.
“In that sense,” Darnielle says, “the band’s ethos is one of celebrating our own creativity in a room full of other people who are into it.”
As mentioned, Darnielle has become a best-selling novelist in the meantime. Three times over, in fact. Literature, he says, is his “second love,” close to music, which he’s known all his life. He got into genre fiction around 11 years old. He’s constantly reading a book, hardly ever letting a day go by without sentences and pages passing in front of his eyes. These days, he’s reading James Baldwin. What will come next remains a surprise, but the act of choosing that next book is part of the fun. It’s with all of this that Darnielle began undertaking The Mountain Goats’ latest LP. That album, Bleed Out, is similar to a giant found poem. He began it by taking lines from movies and turning them into songs. The result is an enthusiastic, energetic collection that brims with solid work. There is much on the album about war, fighting, and battle. Standout songs include the raucous “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome” and “Need More Bandages.”
And as for the future, there is still more on the prolific Darnielle’s plate, including a robust international tour, more songwriting, and even potentially a new book idea. It’s all part of the cornucopia that art offers him, he says. Especially when it comes to music.
“Music can be so many things to you at various times,” Darnielle says. “So, the short answer [of what I love most about it] is versatility. It takes place in the mind and body and in spirit and in the heart and in neurons. These things are so incredible to me.”
Photo by Spence Kelly / Courtesy Grandstand HQ